Last week I was lucky enough to be in America again, to attend a conference at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This was hosted by the Centre for British and Irish Studies and was on ‘The Rake’s Progress.’ Readers of this blog who’ve seen my posts in the past will know that this was something I couldn’t miss! You can read my tweets from the conference here.
The conference was a particularly stimulating experience. Conceived as an interdisciplinary event, it considered not only the Hogarth prints and paintings on which I work, but also the opera by Stravinsky along with the libretto by Auden and Kallman, and the famous stage sets by David Hockney that go with this. I blogged last year about a production of the opera (without the Hockney sets) that Alexi, Sophie and I attended in Cambridge. I was struck then by ways in which the opera picks up on key themes in the Hogarth prints which are also key to the longitude story.
Applying to speak at this conference gave me the opportunity to think about Hockney’s stage sets for the opera, in which he built fascinatingly on Hogarth’s prints. Every detail of the sets draws on one or other print, and builds a whole world out of Hogarth’s cross-hatched aesthetic. They are truly wonderful sets, the designs for which you can see here. I was immediately struck by how Hockney’s Bedlam prioritises graffiti on the wall, as practiced by my cherished longitude lunatic, so was thrilled to find that longitude was, in fact, his inspiration. Hockney told an interviewer in the 1980s, ‘Where do you think I got the idea to use graffiti in the Bedlam scene? From Hogarth … of course. I suddenly realised that in his Bedlam drawing, one of the madmen is scribbling a map of the world on the wall. Then I thought about what the walls of Bedlam must have been covered with.’ Gold dust for me! In researching for the talk, I have been thinking more and more about subsequent responses to Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress and going back to my thoughts on Grayson Perry’s tapestry series about which I posted here in July. I’ve realised that these are the makings of my PhD conclusion.
I therefore found it particularly helpful to hear the range of discussions at the conference, thinking about how Stravinsky, Auden, Kallman and Hockney picked up on Hogarth’s ideas. We were lucky enough to have the well-known art critic and personal friend of Hockney, Lawrence Weschler, give the keynote lecture, where he argued that the extreme one-point perspective that Hockney creates in his version of Bedlam was what he saw as mad in artistic representation. Showing us the range of Hockney’s subsequent paintings, photo montages and film pieces (many of which also inspired my turn to Hockney when the RA displayed them earlier this year) he argued that the rest of Hockney’s career has been the attempt to escape from this perspectival ‘vice.’ This all seemed to mesh nicely with my thoughts on longitude and latitude as enmeshing grids in eighteenth-century satire.
Matthew Paul Carlson spoke about Auden and Kallman’s libretto, arguing that they create a narrative in which Tom Rakewell is lost in space and time. Nick Shadow, the devil, removes him from the flow of time when in the brothel, and it is only repetitive acts that keep him conscious of time and orientate him in later scenes. This struck me as very apt for the longitude problem too, and the repetitions of trials and calculations central to finding a solution. Abigail Zitin particularly appealed to me with her consideration of Hogarth’s treatise on art theory, The Analysis of Beauty. She argued for the important multiple meanings of the word wanton in Hogarth’s description of the line of beauty as a ‘wanton line.’ This is not just wanton in the impure sense, but also in the wilful, wandering and wishful sense: the pleasure in being led without knowing exactly to where. Again, this struck me as much like the process experienced by the Board of Longitude, although they might not always have enjoyed it.
It also nicely characterises my own ‘progress’ in researching Hogarth and Hockney for the PhD, I might not always be sure where I’m going, but I’m certainly enjoying getting there!
Our friends from Leeds Museums & Galleries have been in touch again recently. Apparently the clock made in 1727 by John Harrison that is now in their collections will be on display in a new exhibition at Fairfax House in York from 5 October.
Find out more on their Secret Lives of Objects blog – or just go to York, I guess.
And as luck would have it, Rory McEvoy will be speaking at Fairfax House on 18 October on ‘Two Yorkshiremen and a Cumbrian’.
During my time helping to organising the seminar series “Things: Material Cultures of the Long Eighteenth Century” over the course of the last academic year, the idea of the ‘object’ as an important historical source has started to affect my own PhD work.
Recently I’ve been attempting to find out more about the Board of Longitude’s sponsorship of gravity research in various voyages of discovery in the post Napoleonic period. The instrument of choice for this research was the pendulum, as the frequency of its period would vary with the local strength of gravity. The pendulum as a scientific instrument underwent a transformation in this period. From a trusted source of time intervals in astronomical regulator clocks, as it ticked and tocked in the centre of observatories across the globe, into a more problematic instrument when used to measure gravity, encountering problems of air resistance and suspension. My research traces this adaption of the pendulum as they were, sometimes literally, removed from clock cases and swung to measure gravity variation, instead of constant time, and estimate the shape and density of the earth.
One particular instrument, a Shelton Regulator Clock, has jumped out as an object that effectively demonstrates this narrative of increasing complexity for the pendulum as a scientific instrument. There are five Shelton Regulator Clocks that are present in this period and they’ve all claimed to be the one taken with Cook to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. This confusion between where the five clocks were at different times and for different events is in part a result of an absence of proper cataloguing of instruments owned by the Royal Society and the Board of Longitude to which the clocks belonged. This problem is compounded by the fact that the clocks were stored in the 1780s in a warehouse shared by the two institutions and it would have been easy to confuse them with each other as they’re all similar in appearance. This confusion surround the clocks as a result of their similarity also reminds us that a key element of the 1769 transit of Venus was a lesson learnt from the 1761 expeditions: it was good scientific practise to ensure that your instruments were as identical as possible to ensure the results, taken from different locations across the globe, would be as comparable as possible.
Cook took with him one clock to observe the 1769 transit of Venus, on his subsequent voyages in 1772 and 1776 he took two: a clock from the Royal society and the one owned by the Board of Longitude. The clock that he took with him in 1768 had been previously used by Nevil Maskelyne to preform gravity experiments and observe the 1761 transit of Venus in St. Helena. This set of gravity experiment was the forerunner to many more experiments resulting in a peak of gravity research in the 1820s and 1830s. Maskelyne report from December 12th 1771 shows the pioneering nature of this early work – “when compared with the going of the Clock at Greenwich, will shew the difference of gravity from that at Greenwich, which is a very curious point in experimental Philosophy.”
After traveling with Cook the clock was back with Maskelyne, now Astronomer Royal, by 1774 and he took it to Perthshire in order to conduct an experiment to “weight the earth” by measuring the deflection of a plumb line caused by a nearby mountain mass. George Biddle Airy then took the clock and another from the Royal Society with him to measure the density of the earth at the top and bottom of a mine shaft in Cornwall with William Whewell in the spring of 1826. The next account of the whereabouts of this clock is in an inventory of the instruments owned by the Royal Society conducted between 1827 and 1834. The inventory includes three Shelton clocks listed as items 33, 34 and 35 that came with a note from Mr Simms, who conducted the survey, saying “The two last employed at the transit of Venus… and Professors Airy and Whewell.” This note tells us that the last two were used by Airy in Cornwall and that Mr Simm’s might not be confident of which, but one of these two clocks, was also the one that had gone with Cook to the Pacific in 1768.
The use of this clock for pioneering gravity experiments by Maskelyne, then traveling with Cook to observe the transit of Venus and finally being used by Airy in Cornwall is an insightful way to map the development of experimental work done with pendulums in both astronomy and gravitational research from the 1760s to the 1820s. The different uses that this clock has had are a fantastic demonstration of the core narrative that I’m attempting to tell as one part of my PhD. This object serves to remind us that it is not only written material that makes history tick, sometimes its clocks.
A number of us have commented in posts on this blog about interesting things which we have found while summarising the Board of Longitude archives for our JISC digitisation project (see for example). One of the aspects that always interests me is the sheer range of people who wrote to the Board, and the variety of places and backgrounds from which they hailed. In just one volume, that I looked at today, correspondents ranged from a barely literate old sailor to the Marquis of Buckingham, and wrote from places as varied as Bath and a French prison in Mauritius. We are always interested in how far printed discussions of the longitude problem disseminated outside of London, so it was striking to find a comment by this Bath correspondent that he did not have access to public libraries, and therefore to the sorts of mathematical and astronomical texts, to which Thomas Young, the secretary of the Board, was clearly accustomed in London.
But, it was the barely literate old sailor, James Straycock, who really caught my eye. I have also written before about William Hogarth’s print from A Rake’s Progress, in which an inmate of Bedlam, the eighteenth-century madhouse, tries to work out a solution to the longitude problem on the wall. One of his drawings is a projection of the world, showing latitude and longitude lines. I was therefore very excited to find the following poem at the end of Straycock’s letter from 1824, in which he proposed a means to draw a plain chart by geometrical rules. He also included an example diagram which you can see here.
Straycock ended poetically with,
So says a weather-beaten – worn out Tar
Who now unfit for sea – lays up in Port
And trys with Reason’s tackle – Winch or Bar
To draw fair Truth from the Profone of Thought.
Then beam a smile benign on the old lad:
And when you hear Brain-sweat runs through his cap
While spreading the Earth’s surface on a plane
Or fathom, off his lines for a true Map
Do not cry out — such labour is in vain
Nor fancy he is Foolish – Drunk – or Mad.
Straycock wrote almost one hundred years after Hogarth placed his figure of the longitude lunatic in Bedlam but unconsciously echoed so many of the themes on which Hogarth there sought to draw, and which I am trying to unravel in my PhD.
As an academic research project we are, of course, interested in making an impact – through museum displays and public programmes, through this blog and other forms of media. It was, therefore, particularly heartening to catch, as it were, one moment of impact almost as it took place.
Thony Christie, author of the Renaissance Mathematicus blog and regular commenter here, flagged up a post on the Science Blogs blog Uncertain Principles, by Chad Orzel, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Union College in Schenectady, NY. He had put up a post asking how to pronounce ‘Maskelyne’, as he was about to teach a class on the history of timekeeping using Sobel’s Longitude as a text. Thony and I both commented there, highlighting the rather different story we have been touching on in this blog, but thanks for what happened next goes mainly to Thony as my comment got lost in moderation for some time!
A couple of days later, Chad had taken his class and reported back in another post:
This week was all about Dava Sobel’s Longitude, and the making of seaworthy chronometers. I said half-jokingly that the week followed a sort of a course through Union’s curriculum: Monday was on the science of navigation, using the experimental results presented here; Wednesday was about the engineering of clocks, specifically John Harrison’s innovations for his marine clocks; and today was the humanities side of things, presenting the story of Harrison’s attempts to get paid. Those last slides are really sketchy because I spent most of the class having them provide details of the Harrisons’ grievances against the Board of Longitude, as related by Sobel. I then provided a bit of the other side of the story, from the Board of Longitude blog: (Rehabilitating Nevil Maskelyne, Part One: Reassessing the accusations, Part Two: Why lunar distance?, Part Three: Cultural differences, Part Four: The Harrisons’ accusations, and conclusions) and this law review article (PDF) looking at the case in a more balanced way than Sobel’s book.
I’ve been saying repeatedly that this class is about learning how to make arguments, and so introduced the additional material by asking them if they could find holes in Sobel’s argument. They did a pretty good job of picking up on places where she glosses over inconvenient details, so I think it was a useful class.
Good news! And well done to Alexi for her setting-the-record straight series. As Chad commented on the earlier post, “The Board of Longitude blog is a very nice and compact counterpoint” to the suspiciously tidy story told by Sobel.
Since I have started working on longitude, I have noticed increasingly how often discussions of time and time-keepers appear in novels, creating an intrinsic link between narrative, human experience, time, and its mechanical keepers. I thought I would share here two of my favourites, so far, and continue to add examples as I find them.
The first, is set in our time period, from a magical little book by Elizabeth Goudge called The Dean’s Watch, which features a wizened old watchmaker in a fen-bound cathedral city who lives only through his clocks. It brings to life a forgotten tradition of watches, ‘Isaac laid the Dean’s watch down on his work-bench … and opening a drawer took out an envelope of watch papers neatly inscribed in his fine copperplate handwriting. The majority of horologists no longer used these but Isaac was attached to the old customs and liked to preserve them. In the previous century nearly every watch had had its watch pad or paper inserted in the outer case, either a circular piece of velvet or muslin delicately embroidered with the initials of the owner, or else the portrait of the giver, or a piece of paper inscribed with a motto or rhyme. Isaac had collected and written out many of these rhymes, and he would always slip a watch paper into the outer cases of the watches of the humbler folk, for their amusement and delight. He did not dare to do so with his aristocratic customers for he feared they would think him presumptuous.’ It nicely shows us the cultural aspects of owning and carrying a watch, how these could be personalised, and what this meant. It shows the changing traditions surrounding time-keepers and attitudes to ‘personal’ time. Elsewhere, it also discusses George Graham and Thomas Tompion.
The second is totally removed from the first in both time and space, coming from Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Museum of Innocence set in twentieth century Turkey (about which I have written more extensively over on my own blog). He discusses the middle-class family clock: ‘It was German-made, cased in wood and glass, with a pendulum and a chime. It hung on the wall right next to the door, and it was there not to measure time, but to be a constant reminder to the whole family of time’s continuity, and to bear witness to the “official” world outside. Because the television had taken over the job of keeping time in recent years, and did so more entertainingly than did the radio, this clock (like hundreds of thousands of other wall clocks in Istanbul) was … there to persuade us that nothing whatsoever had changed.’ Yet, this resonates with Goudge’s work set in the eighteenth century, showing the cultural role of the clock, and how it fitted into changing traditions.
The clock seems to represent stability in both of these and, ironically, a sort of timelessness. In other novels it plays different roles, as I’ll discuss in future posts.
As you’ve already seen in Richard’s post, four members of the project – Richard, Alexi, Sophie and I – spent last week at the annual symposium of the Scientific Instrument Commission in Kassel, Germany. The theme – Instruments, Images and Texts – seemed particularly pertinent to us, bringing together a wide range of our research and highlighting the work that we do pulling together the archives in Cambridge, the instruments in Greenwich, and a huge diversity of sources from elsewhere.
Alexi opened our panel session by looking at the different technologies encountered and employed by the Board of Longitude, how these were considered by both the Commissioners and the external ‘public,’ and how these became ‘black boxes.’ I then followed looking at the visual discussions of the longitude problem on paper – maps, diagrams, illustrations – and how these posed a visual problem in the early hunt for longitude. Richard brought his research right up to date, from his visit to Göttingen, talking about Tobias Mayer’s work on the lunar distance method, and how his tables and instruments changed and translated in the process of being considered by the Board. Finally, Sophie looked at the end of the Board, and how thinking of the Nautical Almanac as an instrument as well as a standardised text can help us to understand the relationships between the different players in the Board of Longitude’s demise. The panel went well and we were glad to meet some of our advisory board and get their feedback.
Elsewhere in the conference, I was struck by a similar concern with the questions of replication, translation and standardisation which had woven through our panel. Papers considered how historical actors have replicated and changed each other’s collections, the process of replicating and using historic instruments in a museum, and, in a more modern sense of replication, how to give these digital life through online databases and collections online programmes. One long panel considered how eighteenth-century cabinets of experimental philosophy translated and communicated the knowledge they created to a wider public, and other papers looked at how older scientific knowledge can be translated for a modern museum audience. Further speakers considered how texts and instruments changed and were re-interpreted between different users, raising problems of standard in both quality and parity and, coming back to databases, we began to think about how these could be brought back together across European boundaries.
Outside of the presentations, we had ample opportunity to make our own connections between instrument, image and text. The very first evening introduced us to the marvellous collections of the Landgraves of Kassel in both the Cabinet of Astronomy and Physics, and the stunning baroque Marble Bath. We saw planetarium shows, pendulums, mural quadrants and globes. We viewed the beautiful alchemical manuscript collections in the Murhard Library, were initiated into the history of the early university at Göttingen, saw modern astrophysicists at work, and happily investigated the stores of the Historical Museum of Frankfurt. Almost overwhelmed by the wealth of things to see and learn, the breaks provided the perfect chance to pick the brains of the many experts in attendance, and to think as a group about the Board of Longitude in its wider context. I, for one, think this conference will be ‘instrumental’ in taking our research forward. Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun.
Welcome to the 38th edition of The Giant’s Shoulders
history of science blog carnival. Because this month it is hosted here on the Longitude Project blog, it seemed apt that it should have a Georgian focus, this being a period (1714-1830) almost exactly contemporaneous with the lifespan of the Board of Longitude. Interestingly, though, the 18th century appears to be even longer than these 116 years, as this brief post on The Looooooooooooong 18th Century
at The Dustshoveller’s Gazette
suggests. At the very least, therefore, we can agree that the 18th century runs from 1660-1832, can we not? And, if so, why not 1600-1900? Very little escapes my net…
The honorary Georgians…
Several bloggers did, however, rise specifically to the Georgian challenge, and to the themes relevant to us Longitudinarians. To them, then, the first spoils! Top marks must go to Thony Christie, at The Renaissance Mathematicus, for bringing us Upon reflection: the Hadley brothers, which includes an account of John Hadley’s quadrant, a significant (and long-lasting) addition to the navigator’s tool-kit.Georgians, longitude, navigation, mariners and instruments galore!
A huge figure (in more ways than one) for our project is Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society and over at Ether Wave Propaganda
, Will Thomas introduces him with a useful Primer
based on the accounts by Harold Carter and John Gascoigne. Equally close to our hearts, of course, is John Harrison, who appears in different guise in ’Infamous Cambridge Craft indeed!
‘ posted at Whipple Library Blog
, which looks at his “purported ‘secret discovery’ of the ‘true scale or basis of musick’”.
Moving to the earth sciences, David Bressan at History of Geology
looks at the interpretation of fossils as the 18th century gave way to the 19th: In Megalonyx We Trust: Jefferson’s patriotic monsters
. He looks at the political and theological motivations behind Thomas Jefferson’s views, which populated the vast, unknown wilderness of the American west with unimaginable beasts. (David has also been busy at Scientific American: Its sedimentary, my dear Watson
looks at early forensic science from a geological perspective.)
brings us The Hanged Man
, which looks at resuscitation in 18th-century London. Fascinatingly, the physicians William Hawes and Thomas Cogan, who founded the Royal Humane Society, offered a cash prize to anyone who could successfully revive a drowning victim. The famous surgeon John Hunter, offered advice, in part gained through his experience of dealing with the hanged until (not quite) dead.
The 18th century world of science would be nothing, of course without a mention of Erasmus Darwin. He is introduced in two posts inspired by Desmond King-Hele’s biography: a review
by Ian Hopkinson at SomeBeans
and in Charles Darwin’s Grandfather
at Latest Breaking News
Not quite Georgian, but possibly Longitudinarian, was my post over on the Royal Observatory Greenwich blog, marking the ROG’s birthday: 336 today. However, rather than focusing on the reasons for the Observatory’s foundation (the “much-desired longitude”), the post highlights the fact that John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, cast a horoscope for the time that the foundation stone was laid (10 August 1675 at 3.14pm).
And the rest….
Peter Kjaegaard reviewed
W.F. Bynum and Caroline Overy’s Michael Foster and Thomas Henry Huxley, Correspondence, 1865-1895,
which is available online
: ”This is progress and we should be happy for it”.
With apologies to the lack of images (due to technical issues beyond my control and capabilities), and thanks to all those who submitted posts to the BlogCarnival site, especially Thony Christie and Michael Barton!